Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Whom Gods Destroy" (January 3, 1969)

Stardate 5718.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to Elba II, the site of an advanced Federation facility housing the last few criminally-insane individuals in the known-galaxy.

The starship arrives bearing a small amount of a newly developed cure for insanity to administer to the inmates there.

After Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beam down to give the cure to Governor Corey (Keye Luke), they find that the most dangerous inmate incarcerated on Elba II, former starship captain Garth of Izar (Steve Inhat), has taken over the asylum. 

With the insane Marta (Yvonne Craig) at his side, Garth -- the once-great hero of Axanar -- has developed a deadly explosive, and plans to wreak revenge upon the universe for his defeat and capture.

Because Garth has learned to shape-shift from the natives of Antos IV, there is a real chance he can take over the Enterprise, posing as Captain Kirk, and bring terror to the universe.  

Fortunately, he needs the correct code phrase to beam back to the ship through the facility force field, and his inability to provide it raises Scotty’s (James Doohan) suspicions about his identity.

Meanwhile, Garth alternately threatens and attempts to persuade Kirk and Spock to join his mad cause.

Perhaps a good rule of thumb regarding Star Trek (1966-1969) is this: rigorously avoid any episode that occurs at an insane asylum of the 23rd century.

The first season entry, “Dagger of the Mind,” is an unsatisfactory episode in large part because there is no motive for the director of the Tantalus Colony, Dr. Adams, to be cruelly and sadistically experimenting on the inmates (or Captain Kirk, for that matter.) 

“Whom Gods Destroy” is an equally unsatisfactory episode, if for no other reason than it seems to exist in a “cartoon” world that doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

What do I mean by that?

Well, Star Trek endures, I believe, for a few reasons.

Not only are the individual episodes routinely clever, intelligent, and amusing, but overall, they paint a largely consistent vision of a future world. 

“Whom Gods Destroy,” by contrast, is like a blind alley of cartoon ideas. Ideas are raised, and then die in this episode, never to be revisited.

For instance, Garth is not just a sick man, but a super-villain. He can shape shift into anyone (along with their clothing…) and he also -- while criminally-insane, no less -- has developed a super explosive that threatens whole planets. 

Quite a guy, right?

But his powerful explosive is never heard of again, in any other episode or movie. For that matter, neither is the cure to insanity.  And the third season of Star Trek, following this episode, suggests that at least two individuals would likely benefit greatly from such a cure: “The Way to Eden’s” Dr. Sevrin, and “Turnabout Intruder’s” Janet Lester. 

Instead, the cure for insanity just sort of goes into a creative hole, never to be heard of, or mentioned, again.

I understand that many fans find Garth of Izar and his background a fascinating addition to the universe. I “reach” (to quote “The Way to Eden”). This information is intriguing, and I also love and admire the scene in which Captain Kirk says that Spock is his brother, and Spock -- beautifully –-- affirms his words.

Overall, “Whom Gods Destroy” provides background on the Federation, pre-Kirk, on starship captains, and the historical mission which brought galactic peace, at Axanar. All that information is indeed valuable, but it’s sort of ancillary, or extraneous to the narrative at hand, which concerns defeating Garth and his super weapon in the present.

Why else is “Whom Gods Destroy” less than satisfactory, overall?

For the purpose of this episode -- and this episode alone -- Kirk has developed with his crew a code phrase protocol to prevent intruders from beaming up to the ship.

Convenient timing, no? 

But even leaving that issue aside, his plan is effective. A code pass phrase works successfully to prevent Garth from accessing the ship. Given that the “test” is successful, why doesn’t the Enterprise ever use a code pass phrase again, throughout the remainder of the five year journey?

Instead, “Queen’s to Queen’s Level One” is a one-off, something that exists in this episode to stop Garth, and then is never used again, even though -- like the cure for the criminally insane -- it would be useful, actually, in other stories.

One minor tweak could have eliminated this problem. Kirk’s log entry at the beginning of the episode could note that the code phrase protocol is invoked only when dealing with penal or rehabilitation colonies. This would explain why the Enterprise does not use it again for the remaining episodes of the season.

Leonard Nimoy went on record, as well, to complain about Spock’s strategy in the climax of the episode, to determine which Kirk is the “real” one. His solution, paraphrased, is to let himself get incapacitated, so that Kirk and Garth could fight it out, and Garth would win (because of Kirk’s depleted condition).

Spock seems a much more resourceful character than that.  I am not nearly as logical a person, and I don’t possess his Vulcan discipline or Starfleet training, but here’s what I would do.  I would set my phaser to wide field, and stun both men, simultaneously. Then, I would beam down a security team, and a medical team too, to make the determination of identities 

But then, of course, we wouldn’t have the Kirk vs. Kirk fight sequence, which is the raison d’etre of this episode, right?

I mentioned this episode being cartoon-like, and I ascribe that quality to the performances. We don’t see a realistic interpretation of insanity in this episode -- by any actor -- just over-the-top theatrics and shouting.  It’s all ACTING to the nth degree, when a little more discipline, a little more nuance might be called for. I’m a big fan of both Steve Inhat, who was brilliant in the best ever Mission: Impossible episode, “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” and Yvonne Craig too.  But their performances here are loud, twitchy and distracting. Shatner’s childish rendition of Garth having a temper tantrum isn’t exactly nuanced either.

DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and George Takei aren’t well served by the episode screenplay, either. They are required, basically, to perform in repetitive scenes on the bridge featuring McCoy grumbling, as the crew worries what to do. It’s filler, all the way.

I don’t consider “Whom Gods Destroy” an out-and-out bad episode of Star Trek.  In that category I place “And the Children Shall Lead,” and “Plato’s Stepchildren,” definitely.  But “Whom Gods Destroy” is one of those strangely entertaining/disposable episodes that makes me grind my teeth with agitation at the plot contrivances and general silliness of the enterprise. 

It’s an entertaining cartoon hour, and the problem with that is -- as we’ve seen -- that Star Trek is usually so much more than that.

Next week: “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield.”


  1. John,
    It's always interesting to read your thoughts vis-a-vis episodes which are less regarded by fans of Trek.
    "Whom Gods Destroy" definitely lowers the grade curve on the Third Season as a whole, and episodes such as these give year three a bad rap overall. Also, why is it that every Starfleet officer other than Kirk was always some kind of legend whose tactics were required reading at the Academy, before they went insane? I imagine by the time the series ended, a whole bunch of teachers in the 23rd Century were pretty disillusioned by having all of their heroes torn down and proven CooCoo for Cocoa Puffs.
    In spite of all this, I could never get enough Yvonne Craig when I was a kid, so this episode was worth checking out just to check her out! She doesn't have very many kind things to say regarding this episode in Marc Cushman's third volume of "These Are The Voyages." From being painted green to her uncomfortable love scene (in which Shatner was injured) to her death scene, Ms. Craig describes the filming as a sort of descent into madness. Truly an artist suffering for her art, and much appreciated by her fans.

  2. Sheri5:45 PM

    I agree with many of your thoughts on this episode, John, and yet I find it compelling in some ways. Yes, the performances are theatrical due to the screenplay's deficiencies: it's a 15-minute story squeezed into an hour's telling, so the direction defaults to dramatics instead of dramatization, because as written, there's nothing to dramatize.

    But there's much to like despite the deficiencies. Number one, kudos for the casting of Keye Luke cast in a "some guy" role that isn't written as deliberately ethnic! I very much like Steve Inhat as an actor and he makes Garth as compelling as possible. Garth's backstory is a very intriguing element, of course--so much so that someone finally wrote a novel ("Garth of Izar") and the old FASA Star Trek role-playing game referenced him and the Four Years' War. Finally, I appreciate how colorful this episode is--the claustrophobic setting is relieved by shifts into as many rooms as possible and odd-angle views through doorways, the aliens are of practically every stripe, and the scenery and lighting deliver every hue the camera can see.

    And this is not the only instance of a coded transmission, John. Kirk transmits "all's well, condition Green" to alert Scott in Bread and Circuses. I also think Kirk's encoding his android duplicate with the reference to "half-breed interference" is a form of coded transmission to Spock in What Are Little Girls Made Of?


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